The first school in the Scottish settlement was a small
log building that was used only a few years. The school population
increased rapidly as more settlers came in and a new building was put up,
built of sawn lumber. Though certainly not handsome in appearance, it was
modern enough for its time. The inside walls were lath and plaster, and an
attempt had been made to insulate the building by filling the space
between the walls with a mixture of lime and sawdust, called grout. The
building was low-ceilinged and ventilated by the frequent opening and
shutting of the front door. A long, low box stove, which would take a
four-foot stick, supplied the heat. The fuel was split hardwood, stored in
a woodshed at the back. Several of the older boys acted as firemen, a
position that carried great prestige and was eagerly sought after. There
had been no toilets for the first school, but as a concession to progress
one was provided for the girls at this one. The boys used a nearby grove
of small cedars, winter and summer.
There were problems in winter. Most of the children
wore woollen clothing, and in recess periods, like all children before and
since, they tumbled in the snow. Because there was no way to brush the
snow clean from the wool, and the damp clothes steamed in the hot room,
winter was one long siege of colds and snuffles. But in spite of this, or
perhaps because of it, a fairly hardy breed of second-generation Canadians
Their hygiene was sketchy. A few families had regular
Saturday-night baths; others just forgot about it until spring, preferably
until the twenty-fourth of May, celebrated as the birthday of that great
and good queen, Victoria, and also as a day when theoretically one could
go swimming. As to health, as far as one could judge, the score was about
even between bathers and non-bathers.
The first teacher in the new school was a man in his
sixties, formerly a surveyor. Too old to tramp through the bush, he had
accepted what he thought was an easier job. He was quite thorough in
mathematics and geography, did well enough in reading and writing, and
taught a smattering of history, which was promptly forgotten, and of
grammar, which was ignored. In discipline he demanded A plus, and his
sixty-odd students walked in fear and stored up hate. Once out of school
they forgot all about it and turned their thoughts to important affairs,
of which the taming of this raw land was one. A few, pushed by parents who
had been well educated themselves in Scotland, went on to high schools and
universities. Doctors, lawyers, and politicians went all over North
America from Bruce County.
Although Jim did not start to school until he was eight
he did well enough because his mother had taught him a good deal at home.
He went the first day in the care of three older sisters, for his brothers
had already received a sketchy education. They worked on the farm in
summer, and, when it suited them, attended school in the winter months.
Jim was abandoned at the front door, or rather at one front door, the one
reserved for the boys, because no female could enter there. Similarly, no
male could enter at the other door, which belonged to the girls. He was
led to a desk which he shared with another quaking novice undergoing the
shattering experience of the first day of school. Jim was given a slate
and told to copy certain letters written on the blackboard. This was all
he did for the first week.
The desks were all the same size and first-graders sat
with arms shoulder-high. Jim's desk partner, after an hour of copying,
went quietly to sleep, his nose resting on the slate. Jim watched,
paralysed with horror, as the master approached, birch gad -in hand-a
small one which he was considerate enough to use on the little boys. Two
swift whacks with the gad brought a yelp from the delinquent, and his
pursuit of knowledge was resumed at once. All the pupils had turned to
watch, happy with this break in the routine. Her Britannic Majesty, the
good Queen Victoria, looked on from her portrait between the two
blackboards at the front of the room. A young and beautiful lady, she
showed her jewels to advantage and did not seem overly concerned with the
conduct of her small subjects.
On other walls were some faded brown maps. Interesting
places like Mongolia were shown where scattered residents rode in
sheepskin coats on small ponies and wore conical hats. The centre of
Africa was a blank space marked only by crocodiles with mouths agape and
lions who held dark people down with huge paws. In the very centre Mr.
Stanley was greeting Mr. Livingstone, both wearing odd-looking hats. On
the world map the British Empire was marked in red spots, well scattered;
some were quite small but British North America made up for that by being
shown as a huge splash of red that faded away to nothing in the Arctic
islands. Indians and buffalo contended for a place on the western
prairies, and in the middle of Hudson Bay a compass pointed the directions
and an odd creature with wings, presumably the north wind, blew at it with
None of the maps were changed during Jim's six years at
the school. Only the Queen's portrait came down, to be replaced by one in
which she had become a stout matronly lady who wore a bonnet. There were
various jewels and ornaments on her person, and she looked sideways, chin
on hand, indifferent to the onlooker and no doubt preoccupied by the
affairs of all the red spots spattered about the globe.
Jim absorbed all these details in his six years'
schooling. They were the source of endless speculation. He would lose
himself in fantasies, shutting out the boredom, the smell of mouldy books
and sour slate-cloths, to dream of far places, of lions and tigers, and of
brown-skinned people on lonely islands. He developed a sixth sense which
warned of danger, of the approach of the adding and the subtracting and
the spelling things that dulled the soul and clipped the wings of fantasy.
For then his daydreams had to be put aside in a lightning shift and a
reasonable answer dredged up quickly to meet any possible question
designed to trap the unwary. But school presented no particular problems
for Jim. He was big and strong for his age, played games well, and fought
with some success. He read the textbooks easily, and found that it was not
too hard to follow most subjects without paying too much attention to a
teacher who, except for mathematics, was not very well informed.
Mathematics he resisted manfully, but such was the pressure and intensity
of instruction that a good deal of that practical subject became firmly
implanted and remained to be used to advantage later.